Remember when Opus was going to save the Newspaper Comics Page. And through it newspapers themselves?
Oh yeah. There were announcements. Berkeley Breathed was coming back, and circulation was coming five steps behind him. And it was going to be a whole new era, both artistically for Breathed and commercially for the papers. Breathed was going Sundays only, a la Outland, and was going to get a half-newspaper page. And Breathed, having moved into the twenty first century (well, artistically, anyhow) was featuring a lush, painted palette on these new pieces.
And most of all, Opus was going to be a newspaper comic. No web presence, no sirree bob. If you wanted to see what had happened to Opus and Steve (and occasionally Bill) after all these years, you were going to have to buy yourself a paper! Because that's how it was supposed to be. The web was sucking the life out of comic strips, and it was time to take a stand. Here -- here's a bit from a 2003 Salon article about it:
But business is no place for nostalgia. When Breathed retired "Outland" in 1995, David Shearer of the Washington Post Writers Group -- Breathed's syndicate -- expressed some remorse over the fate of the strips' sizes. "I'd like to see comics displayed bigger. We all would. But that's not the reality of it," he said, pointing toward electronic media as a place for artists to experiment. Ironically, with Breathed's return, the WPWG is using that missed experimentation as a selling point. "The one and the only place to see 'Opus' will be in newspapers," Shearer says. "This is a tremendous opportunity to increase circulation."
And this was going to be a true sequel. This wasn't just "the return of Bloom County." This was "over a decade has passed, and these people are older and flabbier." In fact, several beloved characters -- like Binkley or Milo Bloom or Oliver Wendell Holmes -- were no-shows, because Breathed didn't want to depict them as teenagers (or older). He went on the record about this.
And it premiered to much ballyhoo. And it went into papers.
And then... nothing. No one cared.
Oh, I don't mean to say Opus didn't and doesn't have fans. It does. Heck, it makes me smile more weeks than it doesn't, and that's not always true of comics I read. But Opus's impact was essentially negligible, both on the comics world and on the world of newspaper circulation.
Do you need proof? Opus launched in 2003. It's a four year old comic now. Did you realize that? Had you realized that he had been around for four years? He's a full year older than Websnark is, and Websnark definitely lost its new blog smell a long time ago. (Note to self -- make mention of the anniversary sometime within a month of said anniversary. Jesus, Eric. Try a little, would you?)
In part, the problem was that glorious painted style. Ironically, it would have looked pretty sweet on the web, where the much deeper palette would show the gradations to good effect. Put onto the comics page it came across as dark and muddied, and subtleties were lost by bad LPI counts. It went away soon enough, replaced with essentially the same colors we saw in the Sunday Bloom County.
This was made worse as newspapers began to shrink the comic. The half-page thing didn't last long at all, really. When it was clear that Opus wasn't spiking numbers, there was no real impetus for editors to bow to the Washington Post Writer's Group's demands and strictures. Given the choice between letting them shrink Opus so they could fit more comic strips in or having them drop Opus entirely, they let them shrink it. Ultimately, that meant the painted style had to go, and a coloring style very very reminiscent of the 80's run went in.
Naturally, the "newspapers only" stance died next. The Washington Post -- the flagship paper for Opus -- began to run it on their virtual comics page, and gradually it moved into other online venues as well. It really didn't have much of a choice -- if it was going to start appealing to the comic strip fans out there, it had to go to where they were and do their best to draw them in,.
(Not that that strategy has been successful either. I mean, in several years of posting, Opus hasn't been covered by The Comics Curmudgeon even once. Now, while there's a case to be made that that means Opus is actually pretty good, so Josh Fruhlinger has little to say about it... not appearing at all suggests he just doesn't read it.)
How far have we come from launch? Well, recently Opus went to Salon, which will arguably be the best place to read it moving forward since they're going to maintain an archive. Sadly, the older strips aren't going up there, so we'll have to wait for the inevitable collection.
And also recently... Lola Granola showed up, and so did Binkley and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Binkley and Oliver... were the same age as when we last saw them, so everyone knows. This despite the presence of Steve's own son, who is now Binkley's age.
So what, one is tempted to think. These are the comic strips. Not every strip is Gasoline Alley (thank God), and real time aging is overdone. Which is true enough... if they hadn't made such a big deal about it, and about how if the kid characters came back, then they'd have to be teenagers and Breathed didn't want to draw them like that.
Hackwork? Not really. I mean, it's still funny and Christ, they're Breathed's characters. He can do whatever he likes. But it's been really, really interesting for me to track this experiment in revivals -- revivals of Berke Breathed, revivals of the newspaper comics, revivals of fortune. And to see the early stands taken -- admittedly, stands that were largely based in hubris, but also stands that meant something to Breathed and (it seemed) his editors -- give way to the painful economic necessities of publishing in the modern world.
And we have come full circle now, and it seems the last great threshold has been reached. From that same 2003 article/interview in Salon we see Breathed write:
As an end, controversy is a dead end. It's why TV shows tried to throw in nudity some years ago. I notice now that the ripples de jour are lesbian kisses. It's a sign of desperation, not good writing. Not to say that if I could figure out a way to throw in some hot lesbian action into "Opus," I wouldn't.
True enough. And in its own way, sad enough. Because hey -- guess what? We have controversy in Opus. And sadly, it's not lesbians making out.
You may have heard the story. Opus is running a series of strips where spiritually mercurial and flaky Lola Granola has been trying out different philosophies, theologies and spiritualisms in an effort to find herself. In the most recent strip, she has latched onto a new one -- terming herself a Radical Islamist. In her words, it's the hot new fad on the planet.
It's a pretty funny strip, truth be told. And it says something rather tame about radical Islam and something a bit more brutal about people who leap into new religious fads without thought or real, honest spiritual consideration.
That's not why I'm discussing it. I'm discussing it because newspapers have pulled the strip, because they're worried people will be offended.
That happens a lot in the newspaper world. It's kind of a boring story these days. Though in this case, it's clearly patently ridiculous. Lola is fully garbed (albeit more brightly than one might expect) and is certainly not tearing Islam down with her statements about it. Really, aside from one note about "a man's rightful place," it would probably be completely acceptable to any Muslim reading it, and almost certainly any American Muslim -- the ones most likely to read it -- would be sophisticated enough to take it in good faith. It sure as Hell doesn't come close to the Johnny Hart Islam Outhouse controversy of a few years back (or any number of controversies from B.C. before his death). But still -- comic strips get pulled. It's what happens.
Except... one of the papers pulling the strip is the Washington Post. In fact, that's almost certainly why it's getting airplay.
And it is getting airplay. Hell, Boing Boing took a stand on it, using the cheerful phrase "chickenshit" in it. Which is perfectly apropos. The move really is chickenshit, and dumb to boot. And lots of pundits are noting that in this time of declining readerships, pulling strips that might actually inspire some controversy is a stupid move at best.
I understand these feelings. And I agree with them, but not completely. Not because I think the strip should have been pulled -- it's patently absurd to have pulled this strip. No, I have reservations because I smell a Washington Post sized rat.
Remember, Opus is syndicated by the Washington Post Writer's Group. The same organization that owns and publishes the Post syndicates and distributes Opus. They're different divisions, and it's certainly possible that the Post editors decided they would pull potentially offensive (only not really) strips from the paper without consultation or connection to the editors of the syndicate... but it seems just as likely that if the Post's editors had a problem with the strips, so would the syndicate's editors -- and so would their mutual owners.
On the other hand... the Washington Post pulling a potentially offensive comic strip from their paper (but posting that strip to the web page) -- and that strip being Opus, by Berke Breathed, still considered by some outlets one of the great rock stars of the cartooning world?
Now that's a story.
And a story means people talking about it.
Publicity. Energy. Zazz.
Do I think this was all a master plan on the part of Breathed and his editors? Probably not. It seems more likely that these strips were sent out to papers, one or two pulled them, and someone at the syndicate thought "waaaaaait a minute..." But I do think that Breathed shifts with the wind. We saw it with Outland, which started off as the whimsical flights of fancy of a poor little girl named Roland Ann whose real life was miserable, so she needed a fantasy life she could escape to. By the end of it... it was Bloom County. Bill Watterson hit the nail on the head with a satirical cartoon he sent to Breathed, which Breathed published in one of the Outland collections or a treasury or something. It featured Breathed pouring money into the gas tank of a boat, kicking Roland Ann to the curb due to her innate unmerchandisabilty. Which may not actually be a word, but I digress.
I'm forced back to that Salon article/interview from 2003, where they were talking to Breathed about his intentions for Opus. Sadly, it's a burka instead of girl on girl action. (Man, consider the... er... artistic merits of a Bobbi Harlow/Lola Granola marriage.) But either way, we've got desperation sign in spades these days. And I wouldn't put it past the syndicate to even hang the newspapers out to dry if it meant getting Opus into the young demographic elite. They don't do those great Dakin Opus plush penguins any more, but they'll start churning them out in a heartbeat if there's a demand. And if the tee shirts are subversive this time and sold through Hot Topic instead of through Wal-Mart, I'm sure the money would still spend real nice like.
Really, if this wasn't some kind of publicity stunt, it should have been. It's the only thing that makes this ridiculous strip-pull seem even remotely sane. And if it was, it's been effective. The web's buzzing. People are talking. I wrote 2,200 words that should have gone into "Interviewing Leather" on it.
And lots more people saw this strip this week than saw last week's slice of theological cheesecake. And even more will see next week's banned strip. And a good number of those people will stick around for the week after that.
Maybe they'll be in time to see Cutter John and Portnoy's inevitable return. And maybe Dakin should start sourcing fabric and polyfill, just in case.